August 1, 2009

Conceptual Metaphor and Embodied Truth

I recently sent Prof. Mark Johnson an email query about his (and George Lakoff's) view of "embodied truth." The trouble, it seemed to me -- and others, such as Steven Pinker in The Stuff of Thought -- is that if the embodied truth thesis is true and (as it claims) truth is always relative to some particular, metaphorically-structured understanding of "the situation" (as Lakoff/Johnson put it), then the truth of the embodied truth thesis itself must also be relative to some such understanding. In contrast, it seems as though Lakoff/Johnson are arguing that embodied truth is absolutely true, and conversely that the "absolutist" or "objectivist" conception of truth (they single out the correspondence theory) is objectively false. Below is the resultant email exchange. Please note that I did not ask Prof. Johnson's permission to post these emails; I have simply assumed that he would not object. Nonetheless, it behooves the reader to read his -- and my -- comments in a charitable manner. Finally, please feel free to add comments, or send me a helpful email if you'd like -- I must admit, I am still not convinced, as much as I'd like to be!

My Email: Prof. Johnson: I am currently reading your Philosophy in the Flesh with great interest, although -- to be frank, if I may -- I am having difficulty seeing how your theory of truth is coherent. A quick question, if you have a moment:

You (and Lakoff) write that "what we take to be true in a situation depends on our embodied understanding of the situation which is in turn shaped by all these factors [i.e., sensory organs, culture, etc.]" (p102). Assuming that this is true, it must be true according to your particular embodied understanding of the situation; and, furthermore, it being shaped by "all these factors" must also be true according to your particular embodied understanding. Why can't I rejoin that according to my particular embodied understanding, the proposition (for example) that "objects have properties objectively" is true -- that is, true in the very same sense as the proposition, stated on the same page as above, that "truth is not simply a relation between words and the world" (p102). I just cannot see how this is a tenable position (obviously -- and this is why I'm writing -- that may be because of my own intellectual shortcomings!). What is your response to this criticism?

Relatedly, I am unsure how your theory handles statements like "atoms contain electrons, protons and neutrons," which is surely not -- it seems to me -- metaphorical. That is just true, and true because it corresponds to an empirical fact. Indeed, the claim that "minds are computers" (or whatever the more sophisticated version would be) is supposed to be on the same par as the assertion about atoms above -- even if it began as a conceptual mapping from computers to minds, a mapping with "heuristic" value. Might it turn out that that statement (about minds and computers) turns out to be true in the same sense that "atoms contain electrons, [etc.]" is true, or that "the earth revolves around the sun" is true?

I apologize for a verbose email -- I am just really eager to know what you think about the "self-defeating" objection, etc. If only I could take a course with you! Thanks so much. Sincerely, Phil

Prof. Johnson's Reply: Phil,Notice the sentence you quoted: "what we take to be true in a situation depends on our embodied understanding . . ." Our point is that "truth" is just another concept like any other human concept, and so it is understood by structures that underlie our conceptual system, and those are grounded in our bodies and their interactions with their environments. An absolutist (objectivist) notion of truth, like the one you are pushing when you speak of scientific truths about electrons, says that truth is independent of our ways of understanding and making sense of things--that it is just a relation between propositions and mind-independent states of affairs. But the history of the philosophy of science over the past thirty years (since Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions) has been one of coming to realize that science is a human endeavor for making sense of, and interacting in certain specified ways with, our environments, given our values and interests. What makes a scientific view "objective" (I word we shouldn't probably put any serious weight on) is that there is a history of methods of inquiry that articulate phenomena and give explanations according to shared assumptions, and these methods have proved very useful for our shared purposes. So, we think we've got the line on absolute truth. However, the history of science simply shows that this is not the case. People had methods for doing science in ancient Greece that worked in some ways, and not in others, but they got along well enough. We, today, are in a different place, with different conceptions of inquiry, method, and values (such as prediction, simplicity, generalization, elegance, coherence, and so forth--there is a vast literature on such values in science). Moreover, there is a growing, and very large, body of literature showing that our most fundamental concepts in science (and in virtually every field and discipline) are defined metaphorically. We have thirty years of detailed analyses of the metaphorical structure of our key scientific and mathematical concepts. This is not a problem, but just an insight about how the human mind, at this stage of evolutionary development, makes fundamental use of metaphor. The literature is vast, but in Philosophy in the Flesh we give references in the topical bibliography at the end. I've also given references in my books The Body in the Mind (there is a chapter dealing with truth) and in The Meaning of the Body. For mathematics and metaphor, see Lakoff and Nunez Where Mathematics Comes From. For psychology, see Raymond Gibbs, Embodiment and Cognitive Science. Then there's Turner and Fauconnier, The Way We Think. For science see Magnani and Nersessian (eds.) Model-Based Reasoning. There are literally scores of articles on the metaphorical structure of basic scientific concepts.


My Reply: Prof. Johnson: Thanks for your response a couple of weeks ago, and thanks for the suggested reading. I have perused a number of the books/papers you list, although I’ve not yet read your The Body in the Mind (it’s at the top of my reading list!). Thus, at the risk of asking a question that your book will clearly answer, my fundamental concern is this:

You and Lakoff seem to be arguing that the statement “the ‘absolutist’ conception of truth is false” is absolutely true. On your theory, though, this statement can only be true relative to your particular understanding of “the situation.” Thus, it cannot be absolutely true that the absolutist conception of truth is false (to put it in a slightly circumlocutory way). I definitely understand that, according to your embodied truth thesis, the statement that (e.g.) “the fog is in front of the mountain” is true only relative to some metaphorically structured understanding of the relevant state of affairs. But what about the statement “the embodied truth thesis is true”? Again, it seems that you and Lakoff are arguing that embodied truth is absolutely true, and thus that there really is no absolute truth – an absolutist claim!

Similarly, you state (below) that “the history of science simply shows that this is not the case.” Given embodied truth, I am trying to figure out exactly in what sense this statement is true. Presumably, it is true because it corresponds to the historical facts; but that can’t be right, since the correspondence theory is false. Maybe the notion of the “stability” of truth comes in here – but I can’t find any detailed elucidation of “stable truth” in Philosophy in the Flesh (again, I look forward to reading The Body in the Mind). Indeed, I'm not sure I have any decent grasp of what exactly stability is.

The primary difficulty for me is the (no doubt objective) truth that your kind of relativism – i.e., that truth is always relative to some conceptual system (to quote from Metaphors We Live By) – is unavoidably self-defeating. There must be at least some absolute truth for your embodied truth thesis to be correct, right? And that would mean that it's false.

Am I missing something here? Have I properly understood your views? Aren't you and Lakoff actually making absolutist claims about what is an isn't true? Phil

Prof. Johnson's Reply: Philippe,You will not find in anything George and I have written together any claim to absolute truth (or absolute anything, for that matter). When we say "the absolutist conception of truth is false", that is simply a summary statement for the arguments we have previously given to undermine any absolutist conception. Similarly, when we say "history of science simply shows that . . . ", this is a conclusion based on previous arguments we've given. In both cases, those arguments rested on assumptions we tried to make explicit. However, there is nothing absolute about any of those statements or assumptions. If, for example, you reject the conception of science that we spelled out in Philosophy in the Flesh, then you won't find our arguments compelling, because you won't accept our explanations of the phenomena, as we have articulated those phenomena. Just as Quine argued, nearly fifty years ago now, there is no part of any web of belief that is absolutely unshakeable or unrevisable, given certain conditions that might arise.

Teachers often challenge their relativistic-minded young students, students who boldly assert "Everything is relative", by pointing out that, if that is true, then their statement "everything is relative" is likewise relative, and so not absolutely true. This is the same form of argument you've raised regarding our reliance on certain assumptions and our claims about how certain bodies of scientific research are incompatible with certain philosophical views and claims. But, as I've just said, ANY argument I can frame will necessarily depend on certain assumptions, some of which might indeed be challenged under certain conditions. So, we are not making self-contradictory claims about the truth of what we say, but it would be burdensome to append to every sentence in which we make a strong claim, that that claim is predicated on assumptions X, Y, Z, . . . and a certain conception of science and various methods of the different sciences.


1 comment: